Charter schools enroll fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools.
Only 8 percent of charter school students nationwide have disabilities, compared to 11 percent of students in traditional public schools, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. GAO.
Part of this discrepancy stems from families’ choices—some parents of students with disabilities prefer the proven track record of a district school. Charter schools may also be less likely to place students in special education.
But the gap is also the result of charter schools’ failure to reach out to students with disabilities, make those families feel welcome, and meet those students’ needs. And in the most egregious cases, charter schools have been documented counseling out or turning away students with disabilities, in direct violation of federal law.
This is troubling first and foremost because of what it means for students with disabilities, who are in desperate need of more public schools, district or charter, to serve them well.
In a new forum from EducationNext, three experts on charter schools reflected on the question, “Should charter schools enroll more special education students?” Tellingly, all three agreed charters should be doing more to attract and serve the needs of students with disabilities.
But encouraging charter schools to enroll more special education students—and to educate them alongside general education students whenever possible—is also good policy for all kids.
Students without disabilities benefit from interacting with a diverse group of peers. Gary Miron, professor at Western Michigan University, writes in EducationNext:
By serving more diverse populations, charter schools would enrich the experience of all their students, exposing them to the diverse range of people in our communities and thus better preparing them for both work and citizenship. After all, nearly everyone at some time will require special attention or supports due to disabilities, illness, or emotional duress. Disability is not an issue that should separate us.
This argument is parallel to the case for socioeconomic integration, which raises achievement of low-income students while offering all students the cognitive and social benefits of learning with a more diverse group of peers.
The broader benefits of school integration—whether by special education status, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or home language—are important to keep in mind because they widen the coalition of support of reform.
Special education activists clearly have a stake in making charter schools better environments for students with disabilities. But all parents and teachers should also be fighting for schools where kids are welcomed and served well, regardless of their background or special needs.